I recently began participating as a guest writer for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s CJ Voices website, where rabbis, educators, and lay leaders from the Conservative Movement are able to share their visions for the future of Conservative Judaism. My first post is entitled, “Who Will Build Our Idea Factory?,” where I draw a parallel between the need for investment in ideas to foster innovation in technology with the challenges facing the Conservative Movement today. Please read, and send me your comments.
This past weekend, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, by my teacher and friend, Rabbi Shai Held. As someone whose theology was primarily influenced by Heschel, it was a joy to see Rabbi Held synthesize Heschel’s many writings and make the case that Heschel sees Judaism as urging each of us to step outside of ourselves, go beyond our selfish needs, and care deeply about the world around us. Heschel argues that we are obligated to transcend ourselves because the whole notion of God’s covenant makes the radical claim that God takes an active interest in humanity, if we are to walk in God’s ways, we too must take an active interest in humanity.
I wanted to share one passage from Rabbi Held’s book that particularly moved me, as it helped me think about how one might translate Heschel’s theology into daily obligations for religious practice. Held writes:
“Heschel’s project is to show us that we are, in fact, significant, but not in the ways in which modernity has trained us to think: we are important not because we have a bottomless capacity for self-assertion (which, tragically, we do), but rather because we have an all-too-rarely realized capacity for self-transcendence. We matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give. Our dignity lies not in our raw power, but in our capacity for commitment, for responsiveness and reciprocity, for gratitude and indebtedness. At some level, human beings are cognizant of all of this; the pressing question is how to reawaken our now disastrously dormant awareness” (Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, 230).
This passage, taken from the final chapter of Held’s book, makes the claim that most of humanity improperly utilizes their potential, taking the power given to us by God and using it to make us more selfish, rather than more giving. However, we can only succeed in fulfilling God’s mission for the Jewish people and humanity if we use that power to transform ourselves for the betterment of everyone. Heschel’s challenge is a challenge worth embracing, and Held’s book is an analysis worth reading for anyone who takes Jewish theology seriously, and for anyone who believes that each person has the potential to be passionate about something greater than their own selfish needs. If we answer Heschel’s call, we not only will transform our world, but we will send a clear message to all of humanity that the ideas of Judaism, or any religious tradition, possess a power to transform how we think and how we live.
Read the book, and embrace the challenge.
When I taught Hebrew High School, I showed students scenes from a film called The Believer, where Ryan Gosling plays a Jewish man who became a Nazi. The film was based on the true story of Daniel Burros, a member of the American Nazi Party who committed suicide after a reporter discovered Burros was Jewish. I showed the students scenes from this film because the plot raises challenging questions about what makes someone a Jew, what it means to embrace or renounce Judaism, and how hatred or self-hatred of Jews continues to impact us in unexpected ways.
This weekend, I read an amazing article by Anne Applebaum of The New Yorker entitled “Anti-Semite and Jew,” where she profiles Csanad Szegedi, a former leader of Jobbik, an ultra-right political party in Hungary that uses overt and implicit expressions of anti-Semitism to gain political power. While Szegedi was one of the ringleaders of the party’s attempts to scapegoat Jews for their country’s economic challenges, Szegedi recently discovered that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, throwing his entire identity into chaos. Today, Szegedi is estranged from the political party he helped bring to power, yet he nows attend a Chabad in Budapest, engages in Torah study, and is slowing attempting to better understand his Jewish identity, and what wrongs he did in the past.
As Applebaum notes in her article, Szegedi’s grandmother hid her Jewishness because the Holocaust led many Jews who remained in Europe after the war to decide that erasing their Jewish identity was the only way to overcome generations of abuse and hatred. As a result, we can assume that countless individuals in Europe are currently unaware of their Jewish identity, or feel that they must hide their identity. While Szegedi’s story is unique, as we commemorate Kristallnacht this weekend, I hope that this story will remind us that the last chapters of the Holocaust’s impact on Judaism have not yet been written, and we are responsible for ensuring that we continue to help world Jewry heal from this horrific chapter in our history.
This week, I wrote my second Dvar Tzedek for the American Jewish World Service, which you can read by clicking this link. My essay focuses on Jacob’s integrity in Parashat Vayetze, and how it relates to the challenge of being a changemaker and following one’s moral compass. Please feel free to write me with any comments or questions.